should Kindles be used in higher education?

One of my goals this year is to test out and review several teaching with technology and social networking tools. I will periodically post reviews here.  I should preface that the reviews are aimed at higher education professors in STEM fields.  I consider teaching to include both classroom teaching and student mentoring/advising, and thus, the reviews will cover one or both of those components of teaching.  Look for the teaching with technology tag.

My first review will be about the Kindle DX by Amazon. The DX model has a larger screen than the regular kindles. Two years ago, Amazon announced plans to market kindles for higher education.  One year ago, several pilot programs began that used the Kindle DX.  I have had my kindle for a year and have tested it out pretty thoroughly, although there are certainly things to learn.  This is what I’ve learned so far.

Pros:

  • The large screen is wonderful!
  • The kindle has a nice bookmarking feature for kindle books, where the reader can highlight text and come back to it later.  Notes can also be saved.
  • The case made for the kindle protects it well from all the abuse it takes in my laptop bag.
  • Kindles display words very nicely.
  • Kindles weigh less than most textbooks.
  • The one textbook that I bought was significantly ($50) cheaper than the print version.  It looks like there really may be cost savings for textbooks.
  • Text documents display beautifully on the kindle, and the font size can be resized.  Books available free via Project Gutenberg, for example, are great to read if you like reading classics.  A list of various file formats supported by the kindle can be found hereNote that textbooks are all in Amazon’s proprietary format.
  • I uploaded all of the papers I have on my computer in pdf form.  The large screen is necessary for reading pdfs, since the kindle cannot resize the print.  The print is usually pretty small and hard to read despite the larger screen, except for journals that are printed on smaller paper.  It is a handy way to read and review papers, although a laptop can essentially do the same thing.  It is especially handy to have a pdf of a paper open while writing a paper or proposal on a laptop, since it creates a second monitor of sorts.
  • The kindle holds its charge for a long time.
  • The adapter for the kindle has a combination outlet plug (for charging) and USB drive (for uploading and downloading from my computer).  One cable is better than two cables.  I also like how the cable is white, so I don’t lose it among my many other mostly black/gray/orange cables.
  • I love testing out sample book chapters on my kindle.  I downloaded about twenty book samples to my kindle for my recent vacation.  I read them on the train ride.  When I finished my books, I could easily purchase a new book based on which sample enticed me the most.  Amazon emailed me a receipt.
  • I have 20-20 vision, but it is not quite perfect.  I wear glasses for reading computer monitors and other digital displays in order to avoid squinting and headaches.  I do not need glasses when reading the kindle–it is definitely more like reading a book.

Cons:

  • Few textbooks are available on kindles.
  • Pricing on other books is frustrating. If I can buy a used version of a book for $0.01 ($3.99 with shipping), I’m not sure why I should I pay $9.99 for a kindle book. Frugality trumps tech toy novelty for me.
  • Kindles do not display figures well.  They are not displayed seamlessly with the text.  I noticed that figures often rotate the dimensions of the figure to display larger, which is nice.  The figure captions often are displayed on the following page, however, which is an enormous problem.  The newer model (Kindle 3) may have fixed this bug.
  • I do not like how kindles display equations.  Kindles seem to display words well, but they have trouble with everything else.  That means technical books are not as readable as my summer beach reading.
  • The highlighting feature could definitely use improvement, since it is cumbersome to search for highlighted text, when many sections in a book may be highlighted.  I greatly prefer using Post It notes in hard copy books.
  • The highlighting and note taking features do not work for pdfs.
  • It is really hard to flip back and forth across pages of a book. It takes a second to turn pages. It’s not a long delay, but it is annoying when flipping back and forth in a book to prepare lecture notes.
  • Searching and going to new sections (rather than going forward or backward one page) is difficult.  I can’t imagine a student being able to effectively use a kindle for a timed, open book exam.  I can barely use it to create lecture notes.
  • As mentioned earlier, I uploaded a large number of papers to my kindle. The user interface for finding files is extremely primitive (it lists the papers, sorting them according to a criteria that one can choose).  Scrolling through hundreds of files for the one I want is time consuming.
  • I can’t lend kindle books to students that I mentor and advise.  I have a lot of books in my office, and students often need them more than me.
  • Testing out sample book chapters is useful for my personal fiction and nonfiction reading, but not so useful for textbooks, since I’ve already made up my mind about which book to use and since I really need to see more than the table of contents and the introduction to decide which book to purchase.

The bottom line:  I thought that the cons would outnumber of the pros. It’s refreshing to know that the kindle has a lot of benefits, but the obstacles to using the kindle for textbooks–both for students and professors–are large indeed.  The largest drawbacks are the user interface, limited highlighting and bookmarking features, and the inability to flip back and forth well.  Thus, in the end, I find that the cons outweigh the pros.  I would not use a kindle book to prepare lecture notes again, and I think that in itself summarizes my positions.

I really think that kindles are perfect for people who tend to buy all of the books that they read and who read their books start to finish.  I use the library when possible and lend my personal books to others when I am done reading them, so I tend to carry around a bunch of real books along with my kindle (which defeats the purpose).  With improved pricing, I would do most of my personal reading on the kindle, but that is as far as I see myself going with the kindle.

How do you and your kindle (or e-reader) get along?

Additional reading

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8 responses to “should Kindles be used in higher education?

  • Paul Rubin

    We had a discussion here a year ago on the use of textbooks in electronic form (including the use of e-readers). I can’t recall all the issues, but I do recall a couple. One significant one is technology lock-in. If a student buys a textbook for a Kindle and later dumps the Kindle (maybe switches to a different brand e-reader, maybe to an iPad, …), do they lose their investment in the book? Can they dump their notes from the Kindle to something else (PC maybe)?

    You’ve identified a number of the other concerns with Kindles and e-ink type e-readers in general. For me, poor display of PDFs is a deal-breaker. I’d also point out that I believe the Kindle has a non-replaceable battery. (The Nook has a replaceable battery.)

  • Laura

    Great comments, Paul! I should have added that not being able to retrieve notes is a huge problem. It would be nice to print out everything that I highlighted. The non-permanence of the textbooks is also a problem if they are to be used as reference later.

  • Greg Glockner

    I have written about this before on my personal blog. The fact that you cannot lend books is a real problem. Nor can you borrow e-books from a library. Or resell books, which is useful for many students. Also, Paul is correct about vendor lock: books purchased from the Kindle store are readable only on the Amazon Kindle, a computer, or an iPad/iPhone- not on an e-reader from another vendor. (To be fair, the Nook does allow lending of content, but its market share is small compared to the Kindle and Apple devices).

    Sadly, these are all business issues rather than limitations in the technology.

  • Kathleen

    I use the Nook. I like how you can actually send books to your friends’ Nooks. After 30 days it comes back to you, but you can send it back to them if they are not finished. I have not yet used it for any of my college classes, as you need to have the CD that comes with the book. Barnes and Noble now has the option to rent textbooks, they are quite cheap…still haven’t tried out that function yet.

    I mainly use my Nook for PDF reading (i.e. Role Playing Games) and reading older books via the Project Gutenberg link you provided.

  • Florian

    FYI – A WSJ (Europe) article on (the future of) digital textbooks:

    Textbooks look to boost digital game (Aug 23, 2010)

  • adamo

    I use my BeBook Mini to read mostly science fiction (and anything else available in EPUB format). PDFs do not get along so good with the (small) BeBook Mini screen

  • Patkung

    Nice article.
    Thank you 🙂

  • Thought Leaders In Cloud Computing: Dr. Reed Sheard, CIO Of Westmont College (Part 1) | Sramana Mitra

    […] to pure browser-based or Internet applications and the absence of Amazon’s Kindle, which is positioned as the textbook of the future in higher education but still needs a volume of textbooks to be made […]

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